Sharing the miracle, handing out 'Hanukkah kits' at Penn

Penn senior Andrew Kener (center) gives a menorah to Scott Mayland as the Restaurant School's Josh Winoker sets up.
Penn senior Andrew Kener (center) gives a menorah to Scott Mayland as the Restaurant School's Josh Winoker sets up.
Posted: December 02, 2010

Sundown was still a few hours away, but the aroma of onion wafting through the University of Pennsylvania's student center Wednesday said Hanukkah was in the air.

"Would you like a latke?" Rabbi Levi Haskelevich called out to two male students, and pointed to the fragrant potato-and-onion pancakes on his table.

They shrugged and kept walking, but moments later, two female students in winter coats scurried up.

"Can I have a latke?" asked Liz Matis, a sophomore from Fairfield, Conn.

The rabbi nodded, and after they helped themselves to pancakes and spooned on applesauce, he handed them two boxed menorahs.

Although far from home, they would light a candle at sunset and observe the start of the eight-day festival, which would begin that night.

"We'll celebrate with our Penn family," said Matis' friend Kira DiClemente, of Short Hills, N.J. "But we'll be nostalgic for our families at home."

Haskelevich, director of Chabad Lubavitch House at Penn, has 1,000 free menorahs to give out this year to students at Penn and Drexel University, all in the name of fostering Jewish religious observance.

On Tuesday night, he led 10 undergraduates through Penn's dorms, where they handed out hundreds of "Hanukkah kits" to surprised students. The kits held a stamped-brass menorah, candles for all eight days, and a dreidel. They also dispensed foil-wrapped chocolate coins, or gelt, another Hanukkah tradition.

"It was a lot of fun," said Ilyssa Friedman, a freshman from Atlanta. "We would knock on doors and say, 'Do you need a menorah?' and people would get all excited."

Haskelevich had planned to set up his table on Locust Walk, Penn's main pedestrian thoroughfare, but rain and high winds forced the have-a-latke, take-a-menorah giveaway indoors. Tweets, text messages, and e-mails spread word of the new location.

"I always like helping Rabbi out," said Andrew Kener, a senior from Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., who was dispensing pancakes and Hanukkah kits at Houston Hall, the student center.

Kener said he was motivated in part by Rabbi Menachem Shneerson, the late "rebbe" or chief rabbi of the Lubavitcher sect of Hasidic Judaism, who "was known to say that just as a person grows physically, he must also grow spiritually."

Handing out menorahs was a way to "share the beauty of Judaism, and of Hanukkah," Kener said.

Penn's religious diversity was made plain moments later when Smitha Sharma, a senior from North Carolina, stopped by and asked for a menorah. "I'm Hindu," she said, "but one of my roommates is Jewish, and she'll be very excited" to have a candelabra. "It makes the room more festive."

Students are not allowed to light candles or have any open flame in their rooms, however. All Hanukkah candle-lighting must take place in a supervised setting in the dormitory's foyer, according the campus newspaper, the Daily Pennsylvanian.

Known as the Festival of Lights, Hanukkah celebrates the Jewish overthrow in the second century B.C. of Greek rulers who had suppressed Jewish observance.

When the Jews went to rededicate the great temple in Jerusalem, they found only enough oil to burn for one day, according to tradition, but that oil burned for eight days.

The Jewish leadership called on the faithful to celebrate the miracle every year by lighting eight candles starting on the 25th day of the Jewish month of Kislev, which can vary year to year from November to late December.

Although the Lubavitcher sect of Judaism, which sponsors Chabad House at Penn and on other campuses, is often characterized as ultra-Orthodox, Haskelevich described it as "post-denominational" and unconcerned with whether a Jew is Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, or Reconstructionist.

"God likes mitzvahs," or good deeds, said Haskelevich, "no matter who does them."

Contact staff writer David O'Reilly

at 215-854-5723 or

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